Author: Mary Sheldon

Title: Tight Lacing

Date: 7 June 1842

Source: Mary Sheldon Papers, Record Group 30/200, Oberlin College Archives

Document Type:

“Tight Lacing” is an early essay from Mary Sheldon’s school notebook which critiques a clothing practice related to corsets that encouraged tightly bound torsos and reduced waists in both men and women (but for women more pronouncedly). Sheldon’s critical impression of the practice is reflective of Oberlin’s ideology in the mid-nineteenth century, in which the evangelical roots of the town and the legacy of modesty and simple living that existed in rural Ohio conflicted with the more ostentatious trends of the day.1 Oberlin’s motto “learning and labor” was a reality for students in Sheldon’s era and she sees tight lacing as antithetical to those goals. Note her use of the words “enlightened countries,” which is ambiguous in tone. She could mean it sarcastically or sincerely, given her evangelical Protestant views. Her gendered analysis of tight lacing is subdued compared to her more ardent positions in “Women in Politics” and “Female Education,” written at Oberlin.


Tight Lacing.                                                        June 7

Tight lacing, as the term is usually applied, refers only to the compression of the chest. In ancient times, Fashion required her votaries to preserve her according to its original designs. The goddess of beauty, executed by one of the finest artists of Greece, is possessed of a natural waist.2 But in modern times Fashion seems inclined to exact penance of her followers. No person who cares the least for bon-ton3 dare to be seen without the appearance of being screwed by means of a vice into an insect. Nor is this mania confined to the ladies as some insinuate; the gentlemen if we may judge from appearances are afflicted too; perhaps not to so great an extent, but may not this be owing to their employments differing so essentially from those of the ladies?

The practice is not universal but exists only in enlightened countries, and its influence is felt in proportion as the inhabitants are considered more or less polite. Though tight lacing is practiced much very much in our country yet here in our own little village we are comparatively free from its evil effects. Our occupations are mostly such as require the exertion of all our physical powers. It would be quite impossible for the gentlemen to chop wood or work at stone, with the source of all their strength closely confined.

In conclusion, I would say to those who have been most active in portraying its evils, We feel deeply our obligations to you, for your kind efforts to draw us back into the path from which we had strayed; we would take it kindly however if you would cease to remind us of this one failing, as too much irritation might produce inflamations [sic].
Proofed by Joanna Wiley, June 2015.

1The evangelical Protestant ideology of Oberlin’s founders frowned upon excessiveness and indulgence, and these notions continued to inform Sheldon’s education in the 1840s. The health reform movement of the time played into this self-regulation, demonstrated through Oberlin’s support of the Graham diet and bland eating (this went out of style on campus shortly before Sheldon entered Oberlin). A college culture that rejected vanity and promoted health was disfavorable to the practice of tight lacing. (Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996).)

2She might be referring to the Venus de Milo here.

3bon ton: fashionable manner or style.